TBR Challenge: The Mad Countess (Gothic Brides #1) by Erica Monroe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Lady Claire Deering’s mother enters an insane asylum, society is quick to scorn her, dubbing her the Mad Daughter. But Claire’s tattered reputation is the least of her worries, as those rumors hold a horrible, terrifying truth: the Deering women are victims of a dark witch’s curse. If Claire marries her true love, she’ll spend the rest of her life under the thrall of madness.To save herself, she remains isolated…until a will reading at a mysterious castle on All Hallows Eve places her in close confines with her dearest friend and secret love.

Bashful, scholarly Teddy Lockwood has never met a rule he didn’t rejoice in following. When he unexpectedly inherits the Ashbrooke earldom, he’s determined to turn over a new, more courageous leaf–starting with telling Claire that he’s loved her since they were children. The will reading presents the perfect opportunity to win her heart, even if he’s vastly out of his element at this enigmatic, shadowy Cornwall castle. Soon, the simmering passion between them becomes unstoppable. Now, to save the love of his life, Teddy will do whatever it takes to break the dark magic’s hold on Claire. Will Claire spend her life within the grips of strange delirium, or will love prove the strongest of all?

Rating: D

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

The Princess Plan (Royal Weddings #1) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London’s high society loves nothing more than a scandal. And when the personal secretary of the visiting Prince Sebastian of Alucia is found murdered, it’s all anyone can talk about, including Eliza Tricklebank. Her unapologetic gossip gazette has benefited from an anonymous tip off about the crime, forcing Sebastian to ask for her help in his quest to find his friend’s killer.

With a trade deal on the line and mounting pressure to secure a noble bride, there’s nothing more dangerous than a prince socialising with a commoner. Sebastian finds Eliza’s contrary manner as frustrating as it is seductive, but they’ll have to work together if they’re going to catch the culprit. And soon, as temptation becomes harder to ignore, it’s the prince who’ll have to decide what comes first—his country or his heart.

Rating: D+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Julia London’s books in the past, so I thought I’d give her latest title a try.  The Princess Plan is billed as a mixture of mystery and romance, in which a visiting prince teams up with a lively spinster to solve a murder and falls in love along the way.  It seemed as though it might be an enjoyable romp, but sadly wasn’t.  The mystery wasn’t mysterious, the romantic development was non-existent, it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t a romp.  Unless you define a romp as pages of inane chatter and un-funny attempts at banter that seem to exist only as a way of padding out the page count.

Miss Eliza Tricklebank is twenty-eight years of age, and a spinster who keeps house for her father, a Justice of the Queen’s Bench (who has recently lost his sight) and mends clocks to earn a little something on the side.  Her sister Hollis is a widow who inherited a publishing business from her late husband and now publishes Honeycutt’s Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies, and her best friend Lady Caroline Hawke is a debutante (well, she’s described as such, but if she’s the same age as Hollis or Eliza then she’s quite an elderly debutante!), and together the three of them spend lots of time chattering about nothing in particular while also deciding what to put in the next edition of the Gazette.  Under discussion when the book opens, is the visit to London by a delegation from the small (fictional) country of Alucia, in London in order to negotiate a new trade agreement at the behest of its crown prince, who is rumoured to be in search of a bride.

Caroline – who, we’re told, knows everybody in London – is able to secure invitations to the masked ball held in honour of the visit for herself and her friends, and it’s here that Eliza, quietly getting tipsy on the rum punch, makes the acquaintance of a gentleman she later realises is none other than Crown Prince Sebastian.

You’re shocked, I can tell.

Flirting and silliness ensure until Sebastian has to go to put in an appearance at the meet and greet portion of the evening, after which he finds himself a woman for the night.  This means Sebastian never does go to meet with his secretary and dear friend Matous, who had told him he needed to see him as a matter of urgency.

And who turns up dead the next morning, his throat cut.

Of course the proper authorities are informed, but Sebastian isn’t impressed with the way they seem to be handling things and decides to investigate the matter himself, much to the displeasure of his brother and the rest of his staff.  And when, a day or so later, an accusation is levelled against a member of the delegation – printed in a lady’s gazette – Sebastian is furious and demands to speak with the author of such unsubstantiated rubbish.

Thus do Eliza and Sebastian find themselves investigating the murder, but the mystery – and I use the term very loosely – is so incredibly weak that it’s impossible to invest in, and the identity of the villain(s) is telegraphed early on, so it’s obvious to everyone – except Sebastian it seems, who thus comes across as really dim.  And when the mystery is solved, the reader is not present when the full extent of the plot is revealed and is merely told about it afterwards.

The romantic relationship is equally lacklustre.  There’s no emotional connection between Sebastian and Eliza, no build-up to their first kiss and absolutely no chemistry between them.  The conflict in their romance is, of course, that Sebastian is royalty and Eliza is a commoner and thus ineligible to become his wife; plus he needs to marry a woman with pedigree and connections – and Eliza has neither.  The solution to this dilemma is ridiculously convoluted and, unless corrections have been made to the ARC I read, doesn’t work.  Sebastian’s solution is to find a way to make Eliza’s father a Baron, which will make her a Lady and thus an eligible bride.  Er… no. The daughter of a Baron is not a Lady, she’s still a Miss (a Right Honourable). To be a Lady, Eliza’s father would have had to have been made an Earl at least.  Seriously, this information is available widely on the internet and it took me ten seconds to find it.

Eliza is obviously meant to be one of those ‘breath of fresh air’, quirky heroines who doesn’t abide by the rules.  She points out, for instance, that while other young ladies must be accompanied by a maid when they go out, she goes wherever she likes on her own; she stood in the middle of London without fanfare all the time. Conversely, Sebastian is hemmed in by all sorts of rules and restrictions that accompany his position – he frequently bemoans the fact that he cannot go out alone, that he has very little privacy and so on and so on… so I had to wonder why free-spirited Eliza – who sees first hand just how restricted Sebastian’s life is – would want to subject herself to the same constraints.  And Sebastian is… well, I finished the book less than an hour ago, and I can’t remember much about him at all.

The Princess Plan doesn’t work as a mystery or a romance, and the plot –such as it is – is not substantial enough to fill a full-length novel.  The characters are unmemorable, the pacing is sluggish and quite honestly, I was bored.  As an alternative to The Princess Plan, might I suggest The Watching Paint Dry Plan, or The Watching Grass Grow Plan, either of which might afford a similar level of entertainment.

The Cost of Honor (Black Ops Confidential #3) by Diana Muñoz Stewart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He gave up everything to escape his family

The only male to be adopted into the notorious Parish family, Tony Parish always did right by his vigilante sisters. But when an attempt to protect one of them went horribly wrong, he had to fake his own death to escape his fanatical family. Tony set sail and ended up in Dominica—face to face with the woman of his dreams…

Now he must give up Honor to save her

After the death of her mother, Honor Silva moved to Dominica, where her family could help her heal and move on. But her activist mother left her more than money, she left her proof that could take down one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.

Tony gave up everything he thought he knew when he fled his family. But when a threat too dangerous for Tony and Honor to fight on their own closes in, he has no choice but to go to them for help. Problem is, they’ll demand something in return—something that could cost Tony not just Honor, but also the love that changed him forever.

Rating: D+

The Cost of Honor is book three in Diana Muñoz Stewart’s Black Ops Confidential series about a group of adoptive siblings (twenty-eight in total, all but two of them female) who were adopted by one of the world’s wealthiest women and trained in badassery to be warriors in her social justice crusade.  The story picks up after the end of the first book, I Am Justice, and focuses on one of the only male members of the Parrish ‘family’, Tony, who has got himself into hot water by going against orders so as to save his sister Justice from the possibly fatal consequences of her own rash actions.  Knowing the rest of the family will see this as a massive betrayal, he has only one way to keep body, soul and, most importantly, mind together; he fakes his own death to avoid being hauled back to the family HQ to have his memories altered.

Even though he’s managed to get away, Tony knows it’s just a matter of time before the family tracks him down, so he’s determined to keep moving.  Shortly after his escape, he travels to Dominica, where he (stupidly) goes kite boarding during a storm, gets wiped out and is saved by Honor Silva, a young woman who owns a cocoa farm where she manufactures high-grade, boutique chocolate and runs an island tour business on the side.

Having seen Lazarus Graves (as Tony has styled himself) is safe in hospital, Honor returns home to discover that someone has made an offer for the farm, hotel and tour business for an amount way in excess of what it’s actually worth, but she turns it down.  She has no desire to sell and besides, such an offer is extremely suspicious – why anyone would want to pay well over the odds for a business that is just about breaking even?  But when all but one of her regular tour guides fail to show for work and a number of ‘accidents’ start to occur on the tours,  it becomes clear that whoever made that offer is prepared to get their hands on the business by whatever means necessary.

The suspense plot in The Cost of Honor is intriguing, topical and moves at a good pace with clues revealed to the reader at the same time as the characters so we’re able to start to piece things together at the same time they are.  But this is (supposedly) a romantic suspense novel, and the low grade I’ve given it is entirely due to the clumsiness of the romance, which is unconvincing and contains more cheese than my favourite fondue recipe.  Even the term ‘insta-lust’ doesn’t adequately describe the speed at which things progress; Tony is in the hospital when the mental lusting starts (he’s specifically impressed by Honor’s boobs), and within a couple of days, the couple is pondering the amazing connection they share.  (Which isn’t shared with the reader – it’s all telling and no showing.)  The characterisation of Honor is inconsistent which made it difficult to get a handle on her.  When we first meet her, she’s contrasting her own cautious personality with her late mother’s bold, go-getter ways and told she secretes away her heart and her true desires.  But within  a day or two of meeting Tony,  she’s ordering him to get onto his knees and go down on her, and he’s thinking of her as a ballbuster – which just didn’t fit the initial picture the author paints of Honor as cautious and somewhat reserved.

The novel is full of clichéd dialogue and laughable statements .  I made note of many such instances on my Kindle, but here are a few of the highlights:

Tony is turned on by Honor’s driving skills:

“Honor, you catch my breath.  The way you drive.  The way you pause in the road right before a dip.  It’s like you’re one with the earth.”

In an attempt at banter worthy of any Carry On film:

“I can’t wait to get my lips around your recipes.”

(Oooh, er, Matron!)

During a discussion about the level of danger to Honor and trusting each other, Honor says:

“Are you sure, Laz? You barely know me.  I mean, we haven’t even slept together yet.”

Huh?

And when they do get busy between the sheets, she says right out that they don’t need to use a condom because she’s on the pill and hasn’t had sex in two years.  She’s known the man for a couple of days.

And this made me laugh so hard.  After Honor gives Tony the Best BJ EVAH, he asks:

“What can I do for you, Honor? What can I do to show you… to make this moment last forever in your mind? Last for all the days that I won’t be here?”

Hm.  Now let me see.  What should she ask for?  Reciprocation? To be thrown down and taken hard and fast?  Breakfast?  Diamonds? Nah.

She asks him to DANCE FOR HER.

WTF?  I’m pretty sure the response to that request from most blokes would be “are you ‘avin’ a laugh?”

The Cost of Honor doesn’t work as a romance or as a standalone, as so much of Tony’s backstory is obviously tied to previous books in the series and the opening of the novel is quite confusing as a result.  The suspense plot is decent (ish) although towards the end, it’s overstuffed with both characters and plotpoints. But what really sinks the novel is the complete lack of romantic chemistry and the poor-execution of the romantic storyline.  I keep picking up romantic suspense novels by new and new-to-me authors in the hope of finding something to really capture my attention and sadly, am disappointed more often than not.  Give this one a wide berth.

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

Cold Conspiracy (Eagle Mountain Murder Mystery: Winter Storm Wedding #3) by Cindi Myers

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The body count is mounting.

And a deputy is the killer’s next target.

Capturing the Ice Cold Killer is the greatest challenge Eagle Mountain has ever seen. Thankfully, Deputy Jamie Douglas is determined to see justice done. Nate Hall is visiting for a wedding, and the vacationing lawman is more than willing to help. As a blizzard ravages the town, keeping everyone trapped with a killer, evidence begins to accumulate about a mysterious conspiracy. Can Jamie and Nate get to the truth before more innocent people wind up dead?

Rating: D+

When I first started reviewing for All About Romance, I reviewed mostly historical romance – which has always been my favourite genre – and added in the odd romantic suspense title here and there for a bit of variety.  These days I read a lot more RS, although most of it is m/m, as I have found only a small number of authors (Loreth Anne White and Rachel Grant, to name but two) who can successfully (and consistently) combine both romance and suspense into a satisfying m/f story without compromising on either element. I suspect the prevalence – in m/m – of series with long running story arcs which allow for more plot and romantic development may have something to do with that, but whatever the reason, that’s my precursor to saying that much of the m/f romantic suspense I read these days isn’t particularly romantic or suspenseful, and  Cold Conspiracy by Cindi Myers is yet another example of RS-fail.

It’s the third book in the Eagle Mountain Murder Mystery: Winter Storm Wedding series, and the suspense plot centres around the search for a serial killer who is targeting young women and who leaves a calling card on each victim with the words “Ice Cold” printed on it.  I haven’t read the previous two books in the series, but in this one, the community of Eagle Mountain is cut off due to heavy snow, and while it’s believed that the main suspects in the murders had left before the roads had to be closed, the discovery of a new victim shows that not to be the case.

Sheriff’s deputy Jamie Douglas and her younger sister Donna are driving home when they come across a car stopped at the side of the road.  Jamie – who is off duty – is reluctant to stop, given there’s a murderer at large, but Donna is adamant that they must, so they backtrack and discover the Ice Cold Killer’s latest victim – the sixth – laid back in her car seat, her throat cut.

 

Jamie isn’t too pleased when the first person to arrive in response to her calling it in is wildlife officer Nate Hall, her high-school sweetheart and the man who, seven years earlier, broke her heart when he left Eagle Mountain to go to college elsewhere.  Now he’s back, he makes it clear that he still cares for Jamie and would like, at the very least, to be friends, but Jamie rebuffs his attempts to engage her on anything other than a professional level. After her parent’s deaths a few years earlier, Jamie has devoted herself to looking after Donna – who has Down Syndrome – and to her job, and isn’t willing to risk her heart, knowing it would be too easy to fall for Nate all over again if she doesn’t try to maintain some sort of distance.

The search for the Ice Cold Killer spans the series, so there’s no resolution to that storyline in this book, although there is progression in that the identity of the perpetrator has been discovered by the end, ready for things to be wrapped up in the next one.  But any feeling of suspense that the author attempts to create is completely destroyed by the way she telegraphs every single development, so there is no tension and absolutely nothing comes as a surprise.  Jamie, supposedly a well-trained law-enforcement professional doesn’t think to call in the license plate of the victim’s car, and on at least one occasion blushes and fights to “keep her voice steady” when speaking up in a meeting to put forward her views and ideas – one of which is to use herself to bait the killer, so yeah, maybe she should have felt a bit silly suggesting that one.  And Nate is just… there.  A few hours after finishing the book, I can’t think of a single thing about him that stood out, and all I can remember about him is his name and that he spends most of the book on crutches after an ankle injury, which seemed a really odd choice for a hero in a romantic suspense novel.

And the romance? Isn’t.  Jamie does a complete U-turn, from being very stand-offish and wanting to have as little to do with Nate as possible to: “I know if I turn my back on these feelings – if I don’t give us this chance – then I’m going to regret it” and jumping into bed with him.  Huh? What feelings?  I didn’t observe any feelings whatsoever other than her being snippy with him at pretty much every opportunity. There’s no build-up, no relationship development and no chemistry between them whatsoever.

I wanted to mention the portrayal of Donna, who is nineteen years old and high-functioning.  One of the things the author does well is to show Jamie’s struggle with her instincts to protect Donna from everything while also knowing that she’s an adult and needs to have a degree of independence.  I can’t say how accurate or otherwise Ms. Myers’ depiction of Donna is though.

I realise that authors don’t always have a say in their book titles, but surely, If you’re going to call a novel Cold Conspiracy, then shouldn’t there actually be some sort of conspiracy in it? That’s another thing that’s missing, as is any kind of clear motivation for the Ice Cold Killer, or any feeling of menace surrounding them.  With wishy-washy characters, no suspense and no romance, Cold Conspiracy is just… stone cold dead.

Her Steadfast Hero/Her Devoted Hero (Black Dawn #1 & #2) by Caitlyn O’Leary (audiobook) – Narrated by Aiden Snow

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Her Steadfast Hero (Book 1)

When the hospital is overrun by the most brutal of convicts that escaped during the earthquake, and an American doctor is held for ransom, the Navy SEAL unit Black Dawn is called in. Can David Sloane and Black Dawn rescue Dr. Carys Adams before it is too late? Through all the turmoil will David and Sarah realize that their time has finally come, and they were meant to be together?

Her Devoted Hero (Book 2)

When one of her co-workers is murdered and it looks like Kenna might be the next one in the killer’s crosshairs, Dex is determined to keep her safe. But with a target on her back, it’s really hard to keep a shield over her heart.

Rating: Narration: B; Content: D/C

This audiobook consists of instalments one and two in Caitlyn O’Leary’s Black Dawn series of romantic suspense stories featuring the Black Dawn Navy SEAL team. I’m a fan of the genre and am always on the lookout for new titles to listen to, plus Aiden Snow is a very experienced narrator, so I thought I’d give these stories a try. In the end, I found Her Devoted Hero to be the more enjoyable of the two; the story was more interesting and the romance a little better developed, while Her Steadfast Hero suffered from what I call “novella-itis” in that it felt rushed and everything – plot, characterisation and romance –were very superficial.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Defending Morgan (Mountain Mercenaries #3) by Susan Stoker

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Dispatched to the Dominican Republic to rescue a kidnapped child, former Navy SEAL Archer “Arrow” Kane makes a startling discovery: another hostage—Morgan Byrd, a very beautiful and very well-known missing person who disappeared off the streets of Atlanta a year ago. She’s brave, resilient, and unbroken. All Arrow wants to know is why she ended up in a shack in Santo Domingo. All he feels is the desire to protect.

Morgan is done being the victim and is determined to find out who hates her so much that they want her gone—but not dead. Until then, she has Arrow, an alpha stranger who’s offering a warm and safe place to hide. But as the passion between them flares, so does the fear that whoever took Morgan will do anything to get her back. For Arrow, protecting this woman with a mysterious enemy is the most dangerous mission of his life. And it’s worth every beat of his heart.

Rating: D+

Susan Stoker is a popular and prolific author of romantic suspense novels and has written several long-running series in the genre.  I recently listened to an audiobook of one of her titles, and wasn’t wowed by it; I’d failed to realise it was the last book (of nine) in a series, but I wasn’t lost so much as I’d clearly missed out on some important details regarding the central couple, whose relationship had been building since book one.  So I thought I’d give the author another try, and picked up Defending Morgan when it came up for review.  I knew it was part of a series – it’s book three of Mountain Mercenaries – but the series factor wasn’t the cause of the problems I had with it.  I was able to follow the story and action, but it’s slow, there isn’t enough plot to fill a full-length novel, the characters are bland, the romance is limp and much of the dialogue is wordy, repetitive, and unrealistic.

The story opens in media res as a three man team comprised of Archer Kane (aka Arrow – geddit?), Black and Ball (yes, these guys might not be in the military any more, but they still have to have nicknames) effects the rescue of a little girl called Nina, who was kidnapped and removed from the US by her father.  The men get a surprise when they discover Nina isn’t alone; a young woman Arrow recognises as Morgan Byrd – who has been missing for around a year – is with her.  There’s no time to ask questions; the men get Morgan and Nina away, but decide it’ll be safer for them to split up and make their way to the safe house in two groups – Black and Ball will take Nina and Morgan will travel with Arrow.

After just a few pages, we’re told that Arrow feels some sort of deep connection to Morgan –

She was different from all the other women he’d saved over the years. It was as if he could sense her determination. He was proud of her… He also felt more protective towards this woman than anyone else he’d rescued.

The first third of the book deals with the rescue and Arrow and Morgan making their way to the safe house,  but even though they have a couple of run-ins with her captors, it’s pretty stodgy going. It’s mostly Arrow going all ga-ga over Morgan and thinking about how amazing she is to have borne what she’s gone through and how much he wants to protect her, in similar vein to the passage I quoted above.  The author makes it clear, very subtly, that Morgan was repeatedly raped, and it’s clear Arrow knows it, too, so I suppose it’s in his favour that he doesn’t start with the mental lusting; instead barely a page goes by without him thinking or telling her how incredible she is.

Once the group are back together, they manage to get Morgan – who has no passport or papers – out of the Dominican Republic and back into the US without any problem, and then set about working out who had her kidnapped and was paying to have her kept there indefinitely.

And that’s basically the plot.  We get cameos by the heroes and heroines of the previous books, various scenes with the team of heroes-in-waiting, and a backstory for the mysterious Rex, who set up the Mountain Mercenaries (a group of former military guys who are sent in to rescue women and children in precarious circumstances around the world) after his wife disappeared.  (I’m betting his will be the final book in the set.)  But the plot is tissue-paper thin, and as in the first third, most of the rest of the book is devoted to Arrow telling Morgan how wonderful she is and saying stuff like this:

“I saw a woman who was scared out of her skull, but wasn’t afraid to stick up for a small child who needed her.  I saw a woman who had been through hell, but somehow the goodness in her still shone from every pore… Even before I knew who you were, and what your story was, I knew you were special.”

“Just by your presence, you’ve made this apartment more of a home than it’s been since I moved in.  You’ve filled it with your energy and goodness.”

Jeez.  Pass the bucket.

Thankfully, therapy is part of Morgan’s recovery.  She’s attracted to Arrow, but worried that she’ll never be able to have sex with him – a valid concern given what happened to her.  But guess what?  Arrow isn’t worried.

“My dick isn’t going to fall off if we don’t make love.  We can get creative if you aren’t comfortable with penetration.  And I can always masturbate.”

Wow.  He always knows exactly the right thing to say, huh?

The search for the person behind Morgan’s kidnap goes pretty much nowhere until the villain reveals themselves and OMG, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sheer awfulness of their internal monologue.

After two books, I think I can say, categorically, that this author isn’t for me.  There’s no romance, no suspense, page after page of sappy sentimentalism and I just can’t buy all these big, tough alpha guys giving each other relationship advice.  Arrow pretty much never calls Morgan by name, re-christening her ‘beautiful’, and when one of the previous heroines came out with this:

“If he wants to protect me by not letting me watch the news and by doing his best not to talk about the missions he goes on with his friends, I’m okay with that because it means he loves me.”

I almost dropped my Kindle.  Heroines in romantic suspense novels are generally not damsels in distress who wilt at the first sign of trouble; they’re supposed to be as capable, clever and tough as their heroes and able to rescue themselves (and him) when the necessity arises.  But I read that, and thought I’d gone through a wormhole and back to the 1970s.

There are plenty of four and five star reviews for Defending Morgan on Goodreads, so clearly the author has a dedicated fan-base, and if you’ve enjoyed her books before, this might work for you.  But I found it slow, corny, and boring – and I can’t recommend it.